When the credits roll on the 8-to-12 hour game you’ve been waiting all year for, your story, your adventure with whatever character you have just saved the world for the umpteenth time with is over. Before the intervention and widespread acceptance of DLC as a story-extender, this was simply a fact that people had to accept. As BioWare announced the Mass Effect trilogy – not just one game, but three separate titles interwoven with another through the choices the player makes along the way – they were attempting to chip away at this long-standing facet of the medium. They claimed they would bring deep and meaningful interactions with characters you would grow to know and care for over the course of three separate storylines.
With Mass Effect 3, the story of Commander Shepard and the brave crew of the Normandy finally draws to a satisfying, if somewhat technically frustrating conclusion. BioWare’s promise of crafting this world of strong characters, however, is the real star of the show.
We Fight or We Die
Mass Effect’s previous incarnations have clumsily toed the line between a third-person shooter and a full-fledged role-playing game. Because of this, neither half of the equation has ever felt fully fleshed out. Mass Effect 3 streamlines the entire process, but the effects of this are much more noticeable on the shooter side of things. Gunplay is fast-paced, fluid and puts both of the prior titles in the series to shame. The cover system, while still being largely the same, is a bit more interactive and offers for more maneuverability as you leap over chest-high walls and around pillars. Weapon selection seems slightly larger and more diverse at the same time, but it never strays too far from the five established archetypes that the series has come to embrace. Highlights include a semi-automatic sniper rifle and a chargeable shotgun that fires white-hot nails capable of annihilating anything short of hte toughest foes.
The major draw of Mass Effect has been and always will be its story and dialogue system. The iconic radial wheel is undoubtedly the main method of interacting with the game, the centerpiece of Shepard’s conflict against the Reapers, but it too has been streamlined to a risky extent. Dialogue choices have been whittled down from three to two for the most part, and this change takes away from the breadth of dialogue paths that were present in the first two titles. Gone is the ambiguity of previous decisions, replaced with clear-cut binary choices that ask you time and time again to choose between two potentially disastrous options.
This is the heart of Mass Effect 3′s narrative: the choices that you make, and the decisions you have already reached in the first two legs of Shepard’s saga, are going to affect a whole galaxy full of people. When I played through Mass Effect 2, there were several decisions from the first game that only got the barest nods of acknowledgment. Some weren’t discussed at all. As you play through this final title, it’s easy to realize that nearly every single plot point and every major decision from both of these titles comes to a head in ME3: the calls you made years ago are finally revealing their outcomes now, and this can have wonderful or disastrous consequences.
Without a future game to look forward to, BioWare plays fast and loose with your emotions and the companions you’ve met over the course of the series, to the point where no one is truly safe. In the first title, playing the role of the benevolent (or the douchebag) diplomat could lead your crew out of danger with only a single casualty, an unavoidable loss for the greater good. Proper planning and investment could save the lives of the Normandy’s crew from what should have been certain death as you assaulted a massive Collector hive. In Mass Effect 3, people are going to die. There’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Loss becomes a central focal point of the narrative, and this time BioWare is playing for keeps.
Something About Calibrations
The characters are, as I mentioned above, the real heart of this story. Assuming they were not killed off at the end of ME2, almost every main character that Shepard has met makes some sort of appearance throughout the story. Their dialogue is almost universally well-rounded, and there are touching moments between some of the series’ strongest characters. A specific cut-scene with a particular series mainstay had more of an emotional effect on me than entire stories in other games, and it’s due entirely to the grounded nature of the interaction. While not every character has the same level of development as series favorites, there is a sense of finality in a lot of the conversations that Shepard has with his former and current teammates. Their requests in the past come full circle and a healthy amount of these characters are wonderful to see again, even if it is for one final time.
Stepping away from the very structured format of previous titles, the questing system that carries you through the war against the Reapers is much more informal this time around. While you’ll still get full-fledged dialogue sessions to introduce the main storyline and several larger quest chains like the N7 missions and companion requests, most sidequests are incidental, adding themselves to your journal as you walk through the various levels of the Citadel. A volus refugee might speak of his yearning for an ancient book of religion, or an asari commoner might be on the phone pining for a way to contact her bondmate; these spontaneous quests pop up nearly every time you venture out into the markets and embassies, and they add a sense of scale to your story: there’s more to the war effort here than what Shepard is doing at any one point.
With so many quests that continuously force their way into your journal, it’s frustrating to try and keep track of them. Quest descriptions are bare-bones and refuse to update themselves after you’ve fulfilled their requirements. In one admittedly extreme example, nearly half the game passed before I finally found the person I was supposed to deliver a package to. The local maps do make an attempt to highlight persons of interest, but they are largely ineffective, displaying names by region and forcing the player to search high and low in a scavenger hunt-esque fashion. It gets very old, very quickly.
Unfortunately, this was not the only technical problem I encountered during my playthrough. Incidental dialogue between teammates would drop out countless times, some characters disappeared completely during dialogue cut-scenes, giving Shepard a fairly severe case of schizophrenia, and frequent camera quirks often led to odd angles and unusual glances at characters. It’s possible that this last oddity was intentional, but I’m not sure why BioWare would want players to stare squarely at Shepard’s armored chest for 15 seconds at a time, multiple times throughout a conversation session. There may be a separate post documenting some of the more peculiar technical oddities I uncovered down the road, but that’s neither here nor there.
This One Will Not Attempt Diplomacy
Apart from the slipshod and inexpressive journal entries, which are easily one of the lowest points to mention, these technical inconsistencies are non-invasive and don’t detract from the overall quality of the game. Few studios have the grasp of atmosphere and scale that BioWare presents from the get go, and the stakes are constantly rising. In one of the many rooms of the Normandy, a terminal displays your progress in rallying the many different civilizations of the galaxy against the Reaper threat. In a way it’s a meter of how far into the game you are and how well you’re doing, but this collection of “war assets” is something that was always on my mind as I worked through the game. After all, Shepard can’t just worry about humanity anymore: the threat is of extinction on a galactic level. As you gather allies from each of the galaxy’s species, each set piece and planet gets larger and larger in scope. By the end of the game, you’re fighting your way through some of the most explosive and elaborate battles ever realized in the series.
Despite the explosive nature of the campaign, Clint Mansell brings a very somber tone to the game’s score. It doesn’t have the same boldness that ME1/2 composer Jack Wall’s tracks had, but there is a definite sense of purpose with the flow to Mass Effect 3′s instrumental offerings. The soundtrack evokes emotion in all the right places, and hits on some very powerful notes when it needs to. Battle music is fast and triumphant, while more tender moments fall on hushed tones and slow movements. In short, it’s a very solid offering from an established movie composer.
My major issue with ME3 - it always seems like I have one thing to nitpick, but this is rather important – is reliant on how BioWare presented this game in its grossly over-proportioned marketing push. They repeatedly said that this game would be “a great place to start the series” and that people would be able to figure out what was going on from just the content in this final leg of a trilogy. Let me repeat that: the final leg in a trilogy that relies entirely on two games’ worth of choices that you as a player have made over the last five years. Someone coming into this title without that background knowledge is not going to have the same level of emotional investment as a person who has stopped Saren and gone through the Omega-4 relay. The series is all about making Shepard feel like an extension of you as a character via your interactions with the characters and the events that take place, and for BioWare to attempt to shirk that investment via the words of important members of the dev team seems foul. Newcomers to the series should take great care before deciding to purchase ME3 first – there are two entire stories that you’re missing out on, and they add so much more to your experience.
In a word, Mass Effect 3 could be described as “complete”. It sets out with an image in its mind of what it wants from you, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t achieve it. The story brings closure to a lot of things, many unanswered questions and really tugs at the ideas that have been building up these last long five years. It is the ending to a long struggle against the Reapers that will never be remembered in the collective consciousness quite the same way. Just as no two of his adventures will be told the same way, all of our experiences with this game will be, in some tiny or explosive way, unique. Buildings will fall. Civilizations will be changed. The threat of an entire galactic extinction will rest on the shoulders of a single man or woman and their bold crew. There are Reapers to be slain and the methods fall to you.
Don’t mess up.
Dylan Sabin is Toastervision’s Editor-in-Chief and has often been described as “manic”, “slightly eccentric”, and “a fan of fine cheese”. He decided to give the site-running business a chance with Toastervision, and so far it’s been a pretty rad experience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DylanSabin.